The recent wave of attacks against Copts in Egypt has revealed that the majority of these attacks occurred in the province of Minya in Upper Egypt. This fact has brought to the surface a question many Egyptians are asking: Why Minya? In February 2014, Watani International printed a study which attempted to answer this question. Today, we reprint it with very slight updating for the benefit of our readers; also because nothing seems to have changed with the sectarianism that reigns in the province. This sectarianism is exploited by the enemies of Egypt to split Egyptians along sectarian lines, thereby undermining their national unity and the civil State they opted for once they prised themselves out of the grip of post-Arab Spring Islamism – The Editor
Any observer of the sectarian scene in Egypt will not fail to notice that the governorate of Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, is home to the lion’s share of attacks against Copts. With a full 65 per cent of the incidents of violence against Copts taking place on its soil, the question which begs an answer is whether Minya has any specific peculiarity that makes this possible.
From a Minya perspective
Whenever I need to grasp what political Islamic groups are up to, I go to my hometown of Minya in Upper Egypt, which continues to be an Islamist stronghold. I remember heading there at the time of the 2011/2012 post-Arab Spring parliamentary elections which brought in a sweeping Islamist majority of Muslim Brothers (MBs) and Salafis. I was there again in June 2012 during the presidential elections which brought in the MB candidate Muhammad Mursi as president of Egypt. I wrote then an article for the Cairo daily Al-Youm al-Sabea under the title: “Description of Egypt from a Minya perspective”. I said the MB had made a deal with the Gamaa Islamiya and the Salafis to form a joint front that would work to achieve al-Wilaya al-Sughra (the Smaller Rule) meaning the rule of Egypt, and al-Wilaya al-Kubra (the Greater Rule), which is the restoration of the pan-world Islamic Caliphate led by the International Organisation of the MB.
Arab Spring and consequences
All this came in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring when Egyptians—the majority of whom are Muslim—decided to give Islamists an opportunity to govern the country. The MB paraded themselves as “men of Allah” who promised a bright future for Egypt. Once they rose to power, however, it was evident their prime loyalty was not to Egypt but to their pan-world Islamist movement. They oppressed Egyptians, put an end to democratic practice through Mr Mursi’s notorious November 2012 decrees, and attempted to replace age-old Egyptian traditional values with fundamentalist Islamic ones. They moreover proved disastrously inept at, or utterly unconcerned with pulling the country out of the economic nosedive it had gone into in the wake of the Arab Spring. The result was that the Islamists lost the support of Egyptians who came to fully realise there would be no democratic way to remove the MB from power. On 30 June 2013, some 33 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding an end to Mr Mursi’s Islamist rule. The military intervened to avert civil war; on 3 July Egypt was rid of Islamist rule and opted for a civil State.
Egypt’s decision to shirk off political Islam, however, did not spell the end of Islamists. MB leaders vocally vowed to wage “unimaginable terrorism” on Egyptians, and they kept their word, spearheading their terrorist actions from inside and outside the country. Copts, being traditionally a peaceful community and the victims of hatred incited by fundamentalists, bore the brunt of the most ferocious terrorism. On 14 August 2013 alone, the MB waged a nationwide rampage against the Copts leaving four Copts dead, some 100 Coptic churches, institutions, schools, homes and businesses plundered, looted, and burned. Predictably, Minya came in for the worst of the rampage and losses.
Uncontested capital of religious conflict
I have been following on attacks against Copts since 1978, at times as a journalist and at others as researcher with the Ibn-Khaldun Centre for Development Studies (ICDS) from the early 1990s to this day. Research conducted by the centre show Minya as the uncontested capital of religious conflict, with 65 per cent of sectarian violence incidents taking place there. Paradoxically, the governorate’s capital, the city of Minya, hosts international organisations and major NGOs such as Caritas, the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services, the Jesuits and the Catholic Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development, and around ten human rights organisations. By contrast, the other towns and villages in the province suffer a severe lack of civil service. A striking example is the town of Deir Muwwas and the nearby villages of al-Badraman and Dalga which were scenes of brutal attacks against Copts throughout the past 40 years. None of them includes a single development or rights organisation.
A closer look reveals that, although Dalga is officially categorised as a village, it has a population of 120,000 (10 per cent of whom are Copts) and is home to 54 coffee shops, 16 billiard halls, 83 mosques and six churches, but has no branch of any political party or NGO and has only one minor police station. The same is true of al-Badraman, whose 45,000-strong population is 40 per cent Coptic; it includes four churches, 20 mosques, 17 coffee shops, and zero parties and NGOs. The village of Nazlet Ebeid, which has an all-Coptic population of 40,000 has seven churches, a few Christian charities, 45 coffee shops, and no political parties. The village of al-Hawarta, which has an all-Muslim population of 15,000, contains 10 mosques and 15 coffee shops but neither parties nor NGOs.
Playing the number game
According to a study by the ICDS, the Coptic population in Minya is close in number to the Muslim population and is by far the highest such proportion in Egypt. Official figures, which tend to downsize the number of Copts to downplay their demands for religious and civil rights, place their proportion in Minya at 35 per cent of the population; the Church places it at 40 per cent. This high Coptic presence places them almost man-to-man with their Muslim fellow Minyans, a fact which does not sit well with Muslims since it challenges their numerical superiority. Thus they tend to ‘subdue’ the Copts by constantly attacking them, especially given that the Copts are far superior in social and economic standing. This hypothesis is proved by the counter-argument that in provinces where Copts form a slight minority, as is the case with the East Delta province of Sharqiya, sectarian violence is all but non-existent.
Minya Copts are also better educated; 80 per cent of them have university degrees. They are also better aware on the sociological scale: Coptic villages, for example Deir al-Barsha and Deir Abu-Hinnis, have totally abolished the practice of female circumcision in movements spearheaded by the Church.
As landowners and successful business entrepreneurs, Copts are the wealthier portion of Minya population, and have been so since the mid-19th century when they actively contributed to the building of the modern Egyptian State during the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha (1805 – 1848). For this they were rewarded by the ruler with gifts of wide swaths of agricultural land; many of these lands lay in Minya. By contrast, the Muslims of Minya are poorer and less educated, and their social customs such as polygamy and high birth rate do not help them advance. Yet the final result is that Minya Muslims harbour a historic grudge against Copts. For instance, the village of Hawarta (the name literally means ‘ploughmen’) was established by agricultural workers who used to plough the land of Coptic landowners in the nearby village of Nazlet Ebeid. The ICDS study revealed a historic sense of inequity on the part of Minya Muslims as regards Minya Copts.
The revolution of 23 July 1952 brought about the agrarian reform decreed by President Nasser, which appropriated much of these lands—he set the maximum agricultural land ownership at 200 feddans, later, in 1960, further reduced to 100 feddans. Many of the sons and grandsons of the landowner families which had lost so much land became entrepreneurs and members of political parties, forming still the majority of the Minya elite. The historic grudge lived on.
Radical Islamist leaders
The rise of political Islam in the 1970s allowed the poor and marginalised Minya Muslims to make up for their inability to belong to the upper echelons of society or government by joining the Islamist movements and creating a class of their own. Villages all over the Minya governorate, including al-Badraman and Dalga, became strongholds of Gamaa Islamiya and other violent Islamist groups, nurturing many of the most radical and violent leaders of political Islam who committed some of the most brutal attacks in the history of Egypt. These leaders include Assem Abdel-Maged, Karam Zuhdi, Abul-Ela Madi, Fouad al-Dawalibi and the Islamboli brothers. The percentage of individuals from Minya implicated in terrorism cases has reached almost 45 per cent of all indictments.
The brutal assaults in Minya on Copts, their property and churches not only reflect the Islamists’ hatred of Copts, but also indicate the security lapse, lack of State intervention and the absence of law enforcement. As a consequence, Copts have resorted to carrying arms in order to defend themselves, a development that is definitely alarming since it reveals a drastic change in the Copts’ normally peaceful behaviour. They accuse security officials of at best looking on as they are attacked, and at worst of being complicit with the Muslim attackers. It does not help that Copts had high expectations of attaining their rights and equality in the wake of the 30 June 2013 Revolution and the overthrow of the MB regime, in which they took part with gusto.
During my visit to Minya, I met two [Muslim] senior officials from two major security apparatuses and was not surprised by their extensive objectivity, analysis and vision.
The question that begs an answer, then, is: if senior officials are so objective and well aware, how is it that the junior officials behave in a manner that contradicts any awareness and objectivity? The reply, given by a senior official under condition of anonymity, was that the top officials are fully aware of the fact that the Copts are loyal Egyptian citizens who have at heart Egypt’s interests and have historically never stood against it in any way, quite the contrary. But junior officials see Copts as the cause of local conflict which they wish to quell, the easiest way being to subdue them and force them to submit to the injustice inflicted upon them by their Muslim adversaries. Behind this practice is the fact that the Copts have historically been a peaceful, unarmed population, and thus easier to force into submission.
Downsizing by definition
Watani’s Nader Shukry, who has covered sectarian attacks for some 12 years now, believes that Minya suffers from an administrative dilemma.
“Minya is a large governorate; at 3085 sq. kms it is home to more than 13 million people. Its towns and villages are huge by all standards yet, because they are administratively defined as ‘villages’, they have very slight police presence and in most cases the police find it difficult to enforce the law.”
Furthermore, Mr Shukry says, Minya is a stronghold of Islamism, and usually the sons of a given province serve in its police and local government, so the security force in Minya harbours many Islamists. This, he says, explains why the police almost without exception arrive too late to the scene where Copts are being attacked, and frequently merely look on. This is not so common in other governorates; it occurs only in those dominated by Islamists, Mr Shukry says. He believes Minya should be split into more than one governorate, its villages upgraded to the status of towns, and its security force purged of Islamists or educated in order to maintain better sectarian peace.
Mr Shukry also draws attention to a socio-political dilemma in Minya that makes the hatred for Copts get so much out of hand and materialise in such brutal attacks. “The Minya community lacks the presence of the large families or clans which exist further south, and where clan loyalty would ban any member from going against the wishes of the clan elders,” he says. “More often than not these powerful clans desire local peace and hence move swiftly to contain any conflict.”
Cairo elite off mark
I have finally come to realise that the dilemma is not caused by State apparatuses, but rather by the Cairo elite—whether they belong to the State or the opposition—who do not have a full understanding of the course of events in the sectarian hotbeds. Whereas the Cairene elite is preoccupied with political struggle, the people of Minya’s main worry is their right to security. Cairo debates on political issues, while Minya eagerly aspires for security, stability and the rule of law. The political elite oppose the trial of civilians before military courts, while the people of Minya call for its immediate application.
It is thus obvious that there exists a large gap between the demands of mainstream Minya Copts, whose main objective is to have the State offer them the protection and rights due to them as the Egyptian citizens that they are, and the demands for rights and freedoms by Cairo activists. The latter do not see that, on the ground, the rights and freedoms do not materialise in the desired manner: they are simply exploited to entitle attackers to assault the Copts and get away with it.
The Cairo political elite should understand that the fall of Minya—God forbid—would open the door to Islamist domination of the whole of Upper Egypt, since Minya is the main link for anything or anyone heading towards the southern regions.
I have issued the warning; let God be my witness…
27 July 2016